Even if its name might sound a bit silly, the Marshmallow test is one of the most known studies in the history of psychology. The test is actually very simple and was first carried out by Walter Mischel, a professor at Standford University. Its primary aim is to analyse the children’s ability to delay gratification and to understand if there is any correlation between this ability and how they will perform in their future adult life.
During the test every child enters a room and is given a marshmallow. The professor tells him that he is free to eat the candy whenever he wants but if he will wait until he comes back he will get another one. The psychologist then leaves the room and the child is left alone for the longest 15 minutes of his life.
The test is actually very difficult to accomplish for a child, the urge to eat the candy is very strong but still some of them try to get the second marshmallow either by thinking about something else or playing with their hands. Others instead eat the marshmallow as soon as the professor leaves the room. In the middle there are children who manage to resist for some minutes but then give in the task.
By monitoring how this children did in their life as they grew up the professor found out that the test might have been used to estimate the long term success of a person. Once grown up, the children who had managed to resist and got the second marshmallow turned out to be more able to deal with the different situations of life: they achieved higher SATA scores, they were more self reliant, and less drug dependent then the one who had given in.
Why should I care?
The results of the test are really interesting, even if you are already an adult and so you can’t try it on yourself. The inner message is probably that by having the ability to delay gratification and to resist the urges people can have a better quality of life. If you consider your life, you will probably realise that the things you are most proud of are the ones you have struggled for. When we get something as soon as we want it, we skip the pleasure of waiting. Moreover the only things we can get in a very little time are the ones we can either buy with money or get from someone else, while things that really matter in life, like good relationships or self understanding can only be achieved after a slow and long process of step by step improvement.
The ability to delay gratification, which plays a key role in this process of self-improvement, is more or less present in everyone till birth. We all have a different background, but everybody can further develop the ability to resist urges in order to improve the quality of his life.
If you were born with very little willpower and you would have surely eaten the marshmallow, this doesn’t mean that you are lost, that your life will be anything but good. All the same, if you had a great ability to resist urges during this childhood, there is no reason you can relax, this doesn’t mean you will be successful whatever you decide to do.
Our mental abilities are not fixed nor guaranteed. The path of self improvement is something you have to pursue with your own strengths. You will be alone against yourself and your greatest fears, but if you keep following this hard path you will eventually see incredible results. The greatest problem you will have to face is probably where to start: if you go running every day for a month it will take almost no effort to find the motivation to go running the following day, but if you skip one or two days it becomes harder to get out from your house and start running. The same goes for almost everything: it is really difficult to start doing something new, while it is a lot easier to keep doing what is in your daily routine.
But, should you start doing whatever springs in your mind? Well, not really, the marshmallow test tells us that having a strong willpower and the ability to delay gratification is a major factor in defining the quality of life and so you should try to train this ability first. But, how to do this?
One of the easiest way is probably to establish some habits, let’s see some examples:
- Exercise daily even for few minutes, this way you will get healthier and at the same time you will understand that only constant and hard work will lead you to your goals;
- Try to focus on the present moment, this way you will enjoy more your activities and train the ability to resist urges (for example constantly checking your in-box, Facebook and Twitter notifications, etc);
- Don’t waste money on everything that pups up in your mind, try to save something every month so you can use your savings when you really need them. If you think that you really need something, wait 10-15 days before buying it so you can understand if it’s really necessary for you.
Remember that the most important thing is to start. In the process of starting an habit you will probably fail more than once, you will feel helpless and frustrated and you might even consider the possibility to give it up. But the simple fact that you have decided to start means that you are aware that you want to change, that you can change. If something seems too hard now, then start with something easier (for example if you want to lower your Facebook addiction you can try to check your profile just once or twice a day instead of getting rid of your account) and move to harder tasks as soon as you get better at resisting your urges.